Originally posted on the Nature news blog

Japan’s hugely controversial ‘scientific whaling’ program is not actually scientific and must be stopped, the International Court of Justice ruled today.

The judgement represents a victory for Australia, which brought the case against Japan, and the conservationists and researchers who have for years maintained that this whaling program was merely a commercial hunt given a veneer of legality through science.

Since the late 1980s Japan has aimed to catch hundreds of minke whales, plus smaller numbers of other species, in the waters around Antarctica. Japan has previously claimed that its fleet catches whales to study the populations and that the numbers of the animals it catches are small enough to not damage the overall health of the species. This would be allowed under provisions related to scientific research in the international convention that governs commercial whaling.

But the court’s judgement – handed down today in the Hague – says that although the Antarctic whaling program can “broadly be characterized as scientific research” the evidence doesn’t establish that it is reasonable in relation to its stated objectives. In particular, it notes that there is no evidence non-lethal methods have been examined, that explanations for the number of animals killed was weak, and that there has been “limited scientific output to date” from the program.

“The Court concludes that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales in connection with JARPA II [the Antarctic whaling program] are not ‘for purposes of scientific research’…,” says the judgement.

Norway and Iceland both have commercial whaling fleets, but do not claim a scientific justification. There are also numerous subsistence hunts in Denmark, Russia and the USA. However the Japanese hunt has attracted the most attention internationally. Whether today’s judgement will actually halt the country’s commercial hunt remains to be seen.

This article is reproduced with permission from the Nature news blog. The article was first published on March 31, 2014.